Tim Loens is a Flight Instructor at HeliCentre, the largest helicopter academy in the Netherlands. One of the founding members of the Leading Helicopter Academies (LHA). Though he is only 30, Tim already has 4,600 hours flying time under his belt. 4,600!
You could say that Tim’s flying career started when he was just six years old, the moment he stepped on his first commercial aircraft flight. He couldn’t work out how such a big thing could stay in the air. When he saw the cockpit, with all the buttons and screens, he knew that he wanted to be a pilot.
He grew older and wiser, at nine he realised that commercial aviation was rather dull, too much autopilot. Not for him. “When I was nine I gave a presentation on how helicopters worked to my class. I was intrigued. Flying low, flying hands on and doing fun stuff. Flying with a commercial airline seemed rather dull in comparison. The flexibility and versatility really appealed to me.”
“I talked to my friend Google”
Knowing you want to fly a helicopter is one thing but finding out how to do that is quite another. “Yes, it was very difficult, I didn’t know anyone else with the same ambition. So I talked to my friend Google. At first I was very interested in the US, but that required two visas and two different medicals. That was a bit much. Then I looked at South Africa, but it was too far away to check out the flight schools. I decided to look closer to home, in Europe. The flight school that popped up was Northern Helicopters in Sweden. They were the first flight school to use the Cabri, new at the time, and they offered good training. I was able to learn on the Cabri, with the last 30 hours of training on the EC 120. So, basically, I started my career through Google!”
Wanting to fly a helicopter involves many important steps and decisions. Which pilot licence to choose? How long will it take? What future career am I interested in? Which country will be best to learn for my choice? Where will I be staying? And how much is this all going to cost?
“I chose the integrated CPL training because I knew that I wanted to be a commercial pilot and that seemed the most efficient way to get there. When I was based in Sweden, I started at Jönköping and then moved to Gothenburg. The school had accommodation, so I rented from them. I was most nervous about the exam because I had a lot riding on it. At that time I was able to get a special loan from the bank for aspiring pilots. My parents were great, putting a mortgage on their house as a guarantee for the loan.”
Life doesn’t go as you expect
To quote the musician, John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” While Tim had discussed with the owner of the Swedish flight school becoming a flight instructor at his new school, that’s not what happened at all. Instead, after building up his hours to become a flight instructor and taking the FI course, the new school didn’t open. His work in Sweden stopped a couple of months later. What now?
“I very quickly found a job in the UK. I was lucky, because I had done my training in the Cabri. It was still a very new helicopter there; they were looking for instructors and there were very few of them. Before I’d even started I received news from Zil Air in the Seychelles that I was hired there. However, it was going to take a couple of months to sort out the work visa and permits.”
An 8,000-kilometre change of plan
Tim’s plan changed from giving lessons in Sweden to flying tourists in the Seychelles. That’s a change of plan amounting to 8,000 kilometres! Also surprising, because at that time he only had just over 400 hours of flying time. The job involved flying a turbine helicopter, a serious machine, where usually employers prefer a pilot with many, many more hours of experience.
“Zil Air don’t mind hiring low time pilots. It’s one of the very few companies I know that actually does that. So it was a great opportunity, and I was very happy to start there. Most of the flying is passenger transfers. From the airport to the islands to the resorts. Every now and then we did sightseeing trips as well, but I would say 80% of the flights were transfers.
Tim was living in paradise, but how was it working with passengers? For some pilots, that can be hell.
“ They’re on holiday, they’re having a great time, so they’re in a very good mood. You meet all different kinds of people, most of them were very nice. And some very high-profile people too. Obviously, it’s not a cheap destination, and there’s some very luxurious resorts.”
What can you learn in the Seychelles?
In terms of improving flying skills, building up experience, what does scenic flying in the passenger transport business do for you in a place like the Seychelles?
“It was actually a great school because in the Seychelles it is very hot, very humid. It’s limited on power, so you learn to fly very efficiently. It makes you a better pilot, I think. After a couple of years, I also flew in the EC145, a twin engine helicopter. That was fun, something I had really been looking forward to. ”
Seven years in the Seychelles. Paradise found. But Tim began to work on a new plan: going back to Europe to do his instrument rating and then find a job on twin engine helicopters Even that didn’t go according to plan…
Stuck in Belgium
“I was already a flight instructor, but I had let everything lapse. Then I was on holiday in Belgium at the end of February 2020, a few weeks to get my theory subjects for my instrument rating, which I did. Then the coronavirus hit, and the borders closed. I was stuck in Belgium. I thought that it would soon be over, but six months later I was still in Belgium. I knew HeliCentre from before I went to the Seychelles. I did a weekend on the Cabri with them because they had just got their first. Very nice people. Whenever I was on holiday, I would go visit them, just to say hi and see how they’re doing. I got a text from Jeroen, one of the owners asking me if I was still in Belgium, because they urgently needed flight staff. And I said, yes, and I’m available. But all my ratings have expired, because I’ve been flying in Africa for the last seven years. He said: ‘no problem, we’ll sort it out’. And that’s how I ended up at HeliCentre.”
Tim’s career truly got a corona boost. He could have chosen other countries with mountains, or other jobs like firefighting but he chose the Netherlands. A flat country might not seem the most interesting place to fly helicopters.
Flying well-known Dutch DJs
“I do a lot of different things at HeliCentre, that’s what makes it fun. The instruction part, which is great to teach others and to keep your own skills sharp. That’s also one of the big benefits of the instruction, you practise lots and lots of emergencies and exercises. You get to fly some bigger helicopters and do all kinds of special assignments. For example, training for the police and the military. We also do commercial flights for events, like flying a Formula One driver and well-known Dutch DJs. I didn’t know any of them, but I’ve been told they were very famous!”
Are you interested in becoming a pilot? Or looking for pilots or flight instructors? If you are, you can now take the guesswork out of Google. Contact the Leading Helicopter Academies, an elite network of European flight schools. Covering all aspects of flying, offering courses, programmes and training at the highest level. Go to www.lha.eu/contact